Sunday, May 2, 2021

5 Easter, 21-B: Beloved branches

Lectionary: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

 We are a people of the Good News and today’s news is truly good. Our gospel story today is the allegory of the vineyard, which is one of my favorites because of its simplicity, clarity, and assurance.

In this story, God the Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, and those who follow Jesus are the branches. When Jesus says I am the true vine, it implies there are false vines too. If we remember that sin is the seeking of our own will rather than God’s will, then we see that the prophets in Scripture disclose to us when the people of God were themselves the false vine.

In Jeremiah God says to Israel: “…I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine? (2:21) The prophet Isaiah bemoans, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7)

We all mess up, but they acknowledged when they messed up because they knew God loved them, chose them, and would forgive them when they repented. It was a cycle of their lives in relationship with God that played out over and over again. And in characteristic faithfulness, God always invited Israel back into righteousness.

We, on the other hand, fear that if we mess up, we’ll be condemned, thrown out of relationship with God, and into an eternal experience of suffering – even though this is neither Scriptural nor part of our Christian tradition. Still, we tend to resist owning up and repenting when we mess up, and when I say “we” I mean us as individuals and us as church. That’s why we often miss the gift in this allegory.

Production is a highly overrated cultural value right now and connecting it to a person or institution’s worth is dangerous, so we must be very careful not to impose that modern cultural value on the story in our Scripture. This isn’t a story about production or punishment. It’s one of the most beautiful stories found in Scripture of the assurance of God’s mercy and tender loving care. 

In this allegory, Jesus is promising that God, as the vinegrower, is watching over all of us and will have not only the awareness of what tending needs to happen but also the desire to do it. He is assuring us that he himself is the vine that provides us, the branches, all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

The vinegrower (God) is watching over not only the vine but also the world in which the vine lives. When conditions in the world change, the vinegrower responds, pruning the vine so that it thrives in the new environment.

If we connect this allegory to the church, which is appropriate, we can see the blessed assurance that as the world changes, God responds by pruning the church so that we can live, grow, and produce fruit for the kingdom in our changed environment. As demographics shift and economies change, church ministries that once were responsive to the needs of the local context may need to give way to new ministries that serve the changed environment.

So, what about the branches that wither on the vine? The ones Jesus said will be thrown into the fire and burned? Is this a warning to us that we must be productive?

I don’t think so. Jesus didn’t use fear or threats in his ministry or in his revelation of God to us. Instead, he continually gave us glimpses into the mercy of God, like when he asked those ready to stone the woman caught in adultery to cast the first stone if they had no sin, or when he healed on the Sabbath, or raised the son of a widow from death to life.

Also, is it even possible not to fear a God who threatens to torture you eternally if you don’t produce? As our epistle writer points out, “There is no fear in love, but perfect (that is, complete) love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (4:18)

As followers of Jesus when we read the gospels we are reading Good News. If what we read doesn’t sound like good news, we need to pray and listen for the continuing revelation Jesus promised us. As our Presiding Bishop is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”

Being sent into the fire to burn isn’t a threat – it’s a gift, which is why Jesus offers it - and I can prove it. Where else in the Bible do we hear about fire? • Exodus 3:1-6 - (Story of the burning bush) Then God called to Moses out of the bush saying: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 
  • Exodus 13: 21 – (God’s guidance of the Israelites in exile) The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.

  • Exodus 24:17 – (Story of God giving Moses the 10 commandments) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
  • Luke 3:16 - John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
  • Acts 2:3 – (the story of Pentecost) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Fire, in Bible-speak, is the presence of God, who, as our epistle eloquently affirms, is love. Entering into the fire, then, is entering into the presence of God who transforms and refines us, giving us new life.

Whenever we enter into the presence of God, we come out better than when we went in. Will it hurt? Probably, but not for long and the gift of new life we procure will make the transition to it worth it.

The Good News we know is that whenever we mess up, or when the world changes around us, God’s love is there for us, surrounding us when we are afraid, guiding us when we are lost, and transforming us when we need renewal, forming new life for us, for the church, and for the world.

Sharing in the presence and passion of God is one of the fruits of the truth that Jesus abides in us and we in him. When we pray then, we are inviting Jesus to align our wills with God’s will. That’s why he promises that whatever we wish will be done – when we abide in him.

Abiding in Jesus also means recognizing that we are to be as honest, merciful, respectful, kind, and humble in our dealings with one another as God in Christ is with us. We have some work to do here: owning up to and repenting of messing up in the church and in the world. For example, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk are still under-employed and unfairly paid in our beloved Episcopal church institution. Black people are killed nearly every week even as they sleep in their beds, play at a park, comply with authorities, or try to escape. The needs of some who remain vulnerable to COVID are unsympathetically dismissed by those who are tired of the restrictions. Yes, we have work to do… owning up and repenting.

Finally, abiding in Jesus means that when we are experiencing the pain of divine pruning we can rejoice not recoil and cooperate with God at work in us, preparing us to produce fruit, for living as beloved branches of the true vine assures fruit for the kingdom.

When we see withered branches being thrown into the fire we will not judge them. Instead, we’ll remember that they too are beloved branches, chosen ones being drawn into the transforming love of God that leads to new life.

God’s response to sin and death is forgiveness and new life, and healing is God’s response to all wounds. The Good News, therefore, is that we can offer ourselves and our church fully and continually to God, without fear of sin or changes in our environment, and anticipate the promised gift of new life. We are the beloved branches of the true vine from whom we have all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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